Plotting Your Novel and Screenplay #1: Story Beats and the Beat Sheet

nanowrimoAll righty, folks, as a part of a NaNoWriMo special series, we’ll be talking both novel-writing and screenwriting all month long! From plotting to dialogue to character development to “vomit drafts”, we’ll talk it all. ;-) Every post will also end with a bit of writing and musical inspiration, courtesy of Yours Truly. Ain’t I nice? So let’s get into it!

Obviously, plot is a huge component of any story. It provides us the direction, the speed, and the logical conclusion to most stories, and in this way, a plot is very much like a map! But instead of your end destination being Aruba, our destination is a coherent and hopefully, kick-ass, novel or screenplay! But how do we go about drawing out this narrative “map” that will lead us to glory? For me, I start with BEAT SHEETS.

The Beat and the Beat Sheet

Before we can talk about the “beat sheet”, we gotta talk about what a beat is.

A beat is a point in the scene where the character’s objectives or emotions change. It’s a point of conflict, a moment of action and reaction.

For example: Let’s say I’m writing a story called “Colby Assassin”. Colby is a loving housewife-by-day and a ninja-assassin-by-night, kurenai_oukabut finds that these two identities don’t complement each other quite as smoothly as she’d like.

Let’s say that Colby can’t come to her son’s baseball game or put the pot roast in the over because she needs to assassinate a Yakuza boss. Colby has to make an important decision, or take an action, which will then determine a set of reactions from herself, her son, and her husband.

Choice #1:
* Colby’s action: she goes to the baseball game and keeps the Yakuza boss alive
* Reaction #1: her son and husband stay happy
* Reaction #2: tthe pot roast gets cooked
* Reaction #3: the Yakuza boss, having expected a doomsday, is so happy he’s alive that he goes on a killing spree, upping his evil points
* Reaction #4: Colby’s master, the city shogun, condemns her for refusing to follow orders and sends a team of assassins after her

hinata

Hinata (from the series, “Naruto”), my favorite female ninja of all time!

Choice #2:
* Colby’s action: she doesn’t go to the baseball game, and instead kills the Yakuza boss
* Reaction #1: her son and husband are sad and angry with her; son disowns her and husband begins to drift into the arms of another woman
* Reaction #2: pot roast gets eaten by maggots on the counter. This brings other insects into the house, creating a real and metaphorical infestation of house and home
* Reaction #3: the Yakuza boss is forcibly retired, and his evil reign is stopped, which spreads new peace over the territories
* Reaction #4: the shogun promotes Colby for a job well done and she has a shot at becoming the first female samurai of 2013

Do you see all the reactions that occurred because of Colby’s one action? ALL of these are considered BEATS in a story.

But how do we string a list of beats together to give us a juicy plot that makes sense from beginning to end? Well, of course, we employ the…

The Beat Sheet

beat sheet example

Example of a beat sheet! Click for bigger image.

Ultimately, any plot is a string of “cause-and-effect” outcomes of characters’ decisions. In other words, it’s bunch of beats strung together. When beats are listed out in relation to one another (much like the example above), it’s called a beat sheet.

beat sheet is a literal listing out of all the points of conflict, the emotional changes, and the moments of action and reaction from the beginning of your story to the end. It includes ALL the important turning points in a story, giving us story powered by “cause-and-effect”.

In the beginning, beat sheets won’t always be neat and pretty. Sometimes, you’ll have multiple ideas as to how your story should turn out. Maybe you think Colby doesn’t only have two main choices to make. Maybe she has five! And maybe each of these five choices comes with its own set of actions and reactions.

Deeper still, our story characters will have their own motivations and goals, and those goals may change the actions and reactions we might normally expect from our characters. For example, maybe even if Colby misses the baseball game and dinner, her son will still see her as the best mom in the world. Maybe in turn, her husband will see Colby’s devotion to her family as weakness and will go out to cheat on her anyway. Who knows? The possibilities are endless, and BECAUSE they’re endless, I’m going to give you a fun NaNoWriMo assignment that will help you flush out ideas for your novel without making you feel too limited.

“Cause-and-Effect” Beat Sheet Activity

concept map

A blank concept map for your character drama!

1. Draw a concept map like the one on the right. Place your character smack in the middle.

2. Give your character a set of choices. Have these choices branch off of your character like branches from a tree. Start with two choices, but you can even grow those choices to three or more.

3. Branching off from these choices, list / draw out ALL the possible reactions and emotional shifts that can occur because of those choices, no matter how silly, over-the-top, or crazy! List out internal / emotional / mental changes as well as physical, interpersonal, and societal-level changes. Go as quickly as you can without stopping too long to think about it. Let the choices, actions, and reactions develop naturally. Your character’s choices should affect himself, other people, other cities, other families, other countries, other worlds. Your concept map will grow like crazy!

lucidchart-14wgnq94. Don’t be afraid to explore other characters in this concept map as well! Maybe one character’s choice forces another character to make a certain choice. Explore and expand that in the concept map. If the map gets too big, then give the character his own map. It’s better though if you can have all the cause-and-effect relationships on one page, so that you can see your web of entanglement.

5. Don’t worry about being neat, coherent, or sensible. We’ll organize all of our thoughts later when we talk about dramatic structure. In the meantime, keep building up your flowchart, and let your imagination run wild!

FREE FLOW CHART SOFTWARE: Need some help finding the right tools to do this? You can either do this on hardcopy paper or, check out Lucidchart, which is a free service for creating online concept maps or flow charts!

And now, an inspirational word and song from our sponsors…

NaNoWri/ScriMo Inspirational Quote & Song of the Day

 “When you life knocks you down, try to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up.” – Les Brown

Feeling pumped?! Now, go and “get more shine than a little bit” like Willow Smith as you Whip Your Hair and write your butt off. ;-)

And that’s all I got fer ya, folks! If you have a minute in between words, I’d love to hear your tips and feedback on how to generate plot ideas, if you have any that work for you! Stay tuned for the next “Plotting” post, keep writing, and as always…

Keep it indie (and write on, rock on),
<3 Colby

P.S. NaNoWriMo / ScriMo Update: I’m reporting in with a whopping 3,220 words finished for my second leg of “The Final Page” (already at 62,254 words). This brings me up to a total of 65,474 words! Still got 46, 780 words to go to win NaNoWriMo, though!

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2 thoughts on “Plotting Your Novel and Screenplay #1: Story Beats and the Beat Sheet

  1. Pingback: Ideas for Plotting Your Novel and Your Screenplay #2: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends | Colby's Cove

  2. Pingback: Plotting Your Novel and Screenplay #2: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends | Colby's Cove

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